Curing the Global Food Crisis

Growing Food Security in Montreal

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By Michael Lithgow

I am standing in the basement of the old Queen Elizabeth Hospital, at the end of a maze of narrow halls in what used to be the building’s kitchen. It’s a little bizarre, but people are planting seeds. The kitchen has become a makeshift greenhouse for Action Communiterre, Montreal’s oldest and largest network of collective gardens. Pushing tiny seeds into small squares of pressed soil is a humble task, but the project itself is nothing less than the transformation of Montreal’s food systems. The location of the greenhouse in an old hospital couldn’t be more appropriate. Action Communiterre and groups like them are attempting to transform Montreal’s fragile food system from a sick, dependent patient into a model of food security health.

Over the past 30 years, Montreal’s food security movement has changed from a “give groceries” model to a more integrated approach to food empowerment. In the early 1980s when food banks were introduced, food security was limited to feeding people in crisis. Since then, there has been a proliferation of local groups increasingly focused on an integrated approach, increasing food opportunities and choices through education and access. According to Centraide’s Food Security Planning and Development Officer Jean-Marie Chapeau, the concept of food security now encompasses a web of issues. “Food security,” Chapeau says, “means being able to find locally grown food, having the ability to cook at home and plan food budgets, being able to share food with others because food is a good way to socialize, and being made more aware of local food systems and how to participate in them.”

Spring always makes me think about food, at least the promise of food and the bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables soon to come. After visiting Action Communiterre’s hospital-cum-greenhouse, I began to wonder just how fragile Montreal’s food systems really were. For instance, what happens when oil gets scarce? The global food system is completely oil-hooked – through fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, fuels for seeding, harvesting, processing, refrigerating, packaging and transportation. Eighteen percent of the world’s oil consumption is through the global food system. Most food in North America travels over 2,000 km before arriving on our plates. For every calorie of food we eat, on average seven calories of oil are consumed. Come peak oil, food is going to get very, very expensive. Some studies suggest that in less than five years after peak oil, the cost of food could increase up to 12 times. Imagine a $14 head of lettuce. With all of this weighing on my mind, I set out to find people who are looking for answers to Monteral’s food security problems.

Learning about organic food from scratch
My first appointment was with Louis Lacroix, Action Communiterre’s executive director. What makes Action Communiterre unique is that their gardens are collective gardens – something different from the more commonly appreciated community gardens set up through the municipality. “A collective garden is not a community garden,” says Lacroix. “Collective gardens provide land for groups of gardeners—from the planning, to planting, to watering and weeding, to harvesting—everything is done as a group.” It may seem a little daunting, at least at first, but collective gardening has many benefits that extend far beyond mere access to plots of land. The gardens enrich the lives of participants by involving them in a social network and providing them with the opportunity to gain and share skills and knowledge. Each garden has a steward employed by Action Communiterre who is an expert in organic growing, food plants, soils, etc. “Most participants don’t know anything about gardening when they start,” says Lacroix. “It can be the first time they’ve had a seed in their hand. With community gardens, if you don’t know how to garden, what do you do? Action Communiterre teaches people how to grow organic food.”

Each spring, Action Communiterre recruits people from local community groups, but anyone can volunteer. Each garden donates between 15 and 20 percent of their harvest to local food banks. I also discovered that Action Communiterre helped start the Good Food Box, an affordable organic food delivery service in NDG that starts at $6 per week. And they have also started an Intergenerational Food Program, which brings together seniors and youth to make meals and then share them.

As for a peak oil scenario, Lacroix’ thinks Montrealers are not prepared. “The problem is in winter,” she said. “Fifty years ago, people were canning – this is also part of lost knowledge. And people are not aware of the seasons any more. If we want to have local food security, people will have to adjust to the seasons.” I hadn’t thought of that, so off I went to find someone who could teach me how to can.

Community Co-op Can Do
Montreal Urban Community Sustainment, or MUCS, is an organization with a plan to build mixed-use urban housing that combines food security with social economy and community resources. One of those resources will be a community canning coop, where people will be able to access the skills and equipment needed to can and preserve fresh food. According to MUCS spokesperson Spencer Mann, the business will also supply the food by diverting perfectly good produce from Montreal’s waste streams. According to Mann, Montreal food wholesalers and distributors throw away some thousands of tonnes of fresh nutritious food each year . The canning coop will divert some of this food into the homes of people who need it the most.

“The idea came from talking to food security groups in NDG,” says Mann. “We discovered a need for more canned fruits and vegetables of a high nutritional quality among groups like local food-banks and Meals on Wheels. We also learned about the food waste – perfectly good food that is ripe, but that will be overly ripe by the time it gets into the consumers’ hands. The wholesalers and distributors throw it away.”

MUCS calls this food transformation – taking fresh food that would otherwise be thrown away and transforming it into non-perishable forms. They hold workshops teaching people how to can and preserve and what gets canned is shared between participants and local food-banks. The ultimate goal is to increase the ability of participants to improve their own food opportunities.
As for peak oil, fellow MUCS organizer Vince Teetarte points to the significance of Montreal’s port as a North American distribution hub for the global food system. Global food plays a big part in Montreal’s economy. “People aren’t ready for that kind of discussion,” he said. “When you have an economic system based on accumulation, people accumulate as much as they can in the current system before they start choosing other systems to work within.”

I was convinced. The problem was, where to find a new type of economy before our sick, dependent food system flat-lines?

Eat Local not Global
After digging around I eventually located Ann Levesque. She and her colleagues at Equiterre have developed a network that links local organic farmers directly with consumers. Equiterre coordinates a province-wide network of CSAs, or (Community Supported Agriculture) that connects more than 26,000 Quebekers with 79 organic farms. Consumers buy into an organic farm at the beginning of the growing season and share in the harvest with weekly deliveries of produce for about 20 weeks.

How does this help? For starters, it eliminates all that waste produced by wholesalers and distributors. In addition, farmers who grow organically and sell locally create more jobs than other farms and generate almost twice as much economic spin-off as supermarket spending. Levesque notes that CSAs give farmers access to the investment capital they need at the beginning of the growing season. They let farmers pre-sell the harvest saving them the time and money that would otherwise be needed to market and sell produce. Farmers grow what people say they want to eat which helps to avoid unwanted surpluses. Organic agriculture is good for the earth, and it puts more money directly into the pockets of farmers.

Levesque is concerned that there are not enough local farms dedicated to providing Montreal with food to face a peak oil scenario head on. “We need to convince more farmers to produce more food for Quebec,” she says. “Because many farmers are exporting their crops to Japan and other places.”

It may come as a surprise, but despite the seeming abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables in a city like Montreal, food security is a tenuous privilege for many more than you might think. . According to the United Nations, food security exists when people have physical, social and economic access to safe, nutritious and culturally relevant food. A recent study by Direction de santé publique Montréal shows 40 percent of all Montrealers have weak access to fresh fruits and vegetables. A disturbing 28 percent have zero access—that is, there are no fresh fruits and vegetables available within half a kilometer’s walking. For those with a car, maybe not such a big deal, but for those without a car, and for seniors and the poor, it can mean a kind of nutritional crippling.

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The solution to many of these kinds of problems, according to Centraide’s Jean Marie Chapeau, involves recognizing the important links between food and community—creating access and opportunities on the ground level. Food security is about renegotiating our relationship with the food we eat in such a way that we emerge with more opportunities, more knowledge, and more control over our own food outcomes. For example, a low-income family can go to the food bank, but that’s only one option, and one that involves limited fresh foods. A multi-layered approach recognizes that with a little time, and a little money, a family can access collective kitchens where they can share food costs, preparation, and access social networks. Similarly, five dollars can represent very different food options depending on how much access someone has had to food purchasing and cooking knowledge. And a family that is knowledgeable about canning and preserving can supply themselves with year round nutritious food for substantially less than buying similar products from the supermarket or dépanneur.

The things is, there are so many people working on so many great food security projects in Montreal that it really is easy to get involved. Soon enough, if you wanted, you could be growing your own food, or buying it from a local organic farm, cooking it yourself, and preserving produce for the winter months. And if you don’t have a piece of land, or you don’t know any local organic farmers, or you don’t know how to grow or can, you’ve just been introduced to some people who do—and who would love to help you out.

The community organizations that I have mentioned represent only a small handful of the many local groups that make up Montreal’s diverse and growing food security network. Montreal’s food system remains sick, but the prognosis is looking up. If you happen to visit the basement of the old Queen Elizabeth Hospital, just like me, you’re sure to stumble on the cure, or at least one part of it – the part that’s in the shape of a seed that someone’s hand is placing carefully into the soil.

To find out more:
www.actioncommuniterre.qc.ca
www.mucs.ca
www.equiterre.org